A win-win situation

Conservation easements protect wildlife habitat, agriculture

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Exposed sagebrush and golden grasses fleck the rolling hills southwest of Hayden, where Kurt Frentress navigates his hefty truck through a half-foot of crusty, windswept snow.

Just over a crest, about 75 antelope jerk their heads up in surprise before galloping away toward a broad valley south of Routt County Road 65.

Over the next crest, several hundred elk briefly consider the rambling truck before running in a rippling wave of brown over slopes descending into the valley.

It's an impressive sight, though it's not what Frentress is looking for.

He aims the truck toward outcroppings of chokecherry and sarvisberry bushes, where Columbian sharp-tailed grouse are known to weather their winters in the highest branches.

The birds' brownish-grey and white speckled coats blend into the landscape, but Frentress has a keen eye for the grouse, whose populations have boomed on portions of the ranch long protected by the federal government's conservation reserve program.

Ready to give up, Frentress plows his truck toward one last stand of bushes, where he finally spots a lone grouse barely visible against a backdrop of brown twig branches. It sits about 20 feet high, feathers puffed against the icy wind, a rosy neck patch the only sign distinguishing the bird to the untrained eye.

Driving nearly 40 minutes in snow and cold may seem an inordinate effort just to see one bird. Grouse, however, are the reason that more than 1,800 acres of the Frentress ranch will forever remain just as they exist today.

After three years of working with Kurt and Vonnie Frentress, the Colorado Division of Wildlife recently purchased conservation easements protecting an 1,812-acre parcel of the ranch from future development. The agency considers the land, which sits between county roads 65 and 61, important habitat for the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and the greater sage grouse, which repeatedly have been candidates for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's threatened and endangered species lists.

The deal is a win-win situation for the DOW and the Frentresses, who have more cash flow to ensure that the ranch, where they raise cattle and grow safflower and dry land alfalfa, remains viable into the future. A portion of the ranch has been in the Frentress family since the early 1900s, when Kurt Frentress' grandfather homesteaded the land.

"Personally, there is a lot of value in seeing land that won't be developed and will remain the same as when I was a child," Kurt Frentress said.

The project also is an opportunity to be a part of a growing relationship between government agencies and landowners, who are working together to protect natural resources while continuing productive agricultural operations.

Vital habitat

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse populations thrive in open grasslands interspersed with mountain shrubs and sagebrush. Open areas provide leks, or strutting grounds, where males congregate and perform their famous mating dances, a spectacle documented by Lewis and Clark on their travels west.

Shrubs provide cover for nesting and berries and leaves for winter food. Certain grasses also attract insect fodder for the birds and their chicks, explained Liza Graham, a DOW conservation biologist who helped facilitate the project on the Frentress Ranch.

Formerly wheat fields, the land covered by the conservation easements has been part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program for about 15 years. The program compensates landowners for not farming or grazing lands sensitive to erosion.

However, the federal program protects land for 10-year segments only, and properties must requalify each decade.

Garnering the DOW easement means a large chunk of the CRP land now will be protected in perpetuity.

As native vegetation has reasserted itself in the retired crop fields at the Frentress Ranch, so have sharp-tailed grouse populations. There is one lek on the property and four others on adjoining lands also in the Conservation Reserve Program.

"During the summer, when you're walking through the fields, you're just kicking up grouse," Kurt Frentress said.

Although not as common, some greater sage grouse, which require areas of dense sagebrush and open areas, also have been seen on the property, he said.

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse were once plentiful in the intermountain west, where early pioneers reported seeing flocks of thousands darken the skies. Habitat loss caused by development and agriculture has limited the species to less than 10 percent of its historic range, according to some estimates.

The first petition for listing the sharp-tailed grouse under the Endangered Species Act was in 1995, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined listing was not warranted at that time. A coalition of conservation groups submitted a new petition for listing the species as endangered in October.

There have been three petitions to list the greater sage grouse as endangered or threatened. The agency is considering the latest petition; however, biologists with the service, noting rising populations and cooperation between local governments, conservation groups and communities, recently recommended the species not be listed.

In Colorado, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse are found only in the northwest region of the state. In 2001, government agencies and landowners developed a local conservation plan -- a collaborative effort between Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties to protect the species, Graham said.

The plan outlines various action measures including preventing fragmentation of habitat, improving CRP plantings, maintaining diversity of shrubs and working with coal mines and reclamation programs, she said.

A local conservation plan for the greater sage grouse is in the works for Moffat and West Routt counties.

Working with agencies and conservations groups to protect the species also may protect farmers' and ranchers' rights on their lands. The federal government has the power to limit operations and development on lands deemed critical for listed species.

"It has been a powerful reason for landowners to become involved in local conservation plans," Graham said. "They do have a vested interest in keeping these species off the lists."

Although the DOW project on the Frentress ranch is fairly new in Routt County, the agency based the project on similar deals and models involving protection of the Gunnison sage grouse in Gunnison County.

Like the Gunnison sage grouse, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse occur primarily on private land, Graham said.

Conservation easements

The DOW initially approached Kurt and Vonnie Frentress about the value of their land as grouse habitat and the possibility of pursuing conservation easements.

The prospect of protecting their land was attractive to the couple, which was concerned development eventually might "piece meal" the landscape and wildlife habitat in their area, Kurt Frentress said. They saw the growth of the Vail Valley and areas surrounding Steamboat Springs as indications of possible growth headed toward Hayden

"We're not against development," he said. "There's places that should be developed and places that shouldn't."

After the land was appraised, the Frentresses decided to donate part of the value toward the conservation easement, a common decision for landowners involved in conservation easement processes. Although it's also common to reserve one or more lots within a conservation easement for development, the Frentresses opted to protect the land in its entirety.

"We didn't hold out any building lots on the property. ... That was one of our goals, to not develop it," Kurt Frentress said.

One of the most challenging aspects of the process was developing an agreement addressing possible changes of philosophy within the DOW and other issues that may arise.

"It's a real long process," he said. "It takes a lot of patience from both parties. ... You don't want to go into it thinking one thing and having another thing occur."

Under the plan, the Frentresses remain owners and primary managers of the property. With the DOW, the couple developed a grazing plan in the event the land goes out of the CRP program.

Under the easement, the land may be moderately grazed and hayed, though grass must be kept at a certain height and the under story of scrubs must be protected. The DOW will monitor the land and will have some authority in managing the grouse.

The DOW may transfer the easements only with the permission of the landowners.

"I think it would be naÃive to thing we covered all bases. ... We tried to cover the areas we thought would be controversial," Kurt Frentress said.

A win-win situation

In addition to protecting Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and greater sage grouse habitat, the conservation easements on the ranch will protect other wildlife -- including fox, coyote, bald eagles, antelope and hundreds of elk -- that frequent the area.

"Sage grouse are very tied to sagebrush systems, as are other species," Graham said. "Hopefully, by protecting sage grouse habitat, we will be protecting habitat for other sage-obligate species."

Conservation easements also are valuable tools for protecting farming and ranching operations defining the historical and cultural roots of areas such as West Routt County.

Throughout the West, burgeoning land values -- particularly near resorts -- have made many farmers and ranchers land rich and cash poor. Vulnerable to fluctuating commodity prices and the ever-increasing costs of farming and ranching, landowners or their children often are put in the difficult position of having to sell land to sustain operations or pay taxes.

In addition to providing landowners more cash flow, conservation easements decrease land values, making it easier for farmers, ranchers and their families to keep their land and heritage.

That's why it's important for landowners to consider conservation easements while conservation groups and agencies can afford to purchase development rights, Kurt Frentress said.

In that respect, the Frentresses hope the project on their ranch may serve as a model for other landowners considering ways to protect their way of life.

"There tends to be some skepticism of government agencies," he said. "I think as people become more aware of how (conservation easements) work, they'll have a more positive reaction."

-- To reach Tamera Manzanares, call 871-4204 or e-mail tmanzanares@steamboatpilot.com.

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